Live Free Picks
Home Of 500 Handicappers
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
The Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton, the 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday with serious aspirations of their first winning season in four years. Newton threw for an NFL rookie-record 4,051 yards in 2011 and also accounted for a rookie record 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing). The Panthers and Buccaneers have occupied the bottom two spots in the AFC South the past three seasons, but it appears Carolina is ready to break into the upper echelon with New Orleans and Atlanta and even challenge for its first division title since 2008. Greg Schiano makes his NFL head coaching debut with Tampa Bay, which has missed the playoffs the last four seasons and allowed an NFL-high 494 points in 2011.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (2011: 6-10): While Carolina should be able to score, the Panthers must shore up a defense which allowed nearly 27 points per game in 2011. Luke Kuechly, the No. 9 overall pick in April’s draft out of Boston College, could be a game-changer who will even more important with fellow linebacker Jon Beason missing most of the preseason with a thigh injury. Coach Ron Rivera, though, said Beason and No. 1 wide receiver Steve Smith will be ready Sunday. Smith has been sidelined for two weeks with a foot infection. The Panthers became the first team in NFL history to have three players rush for more than 700 yards in a season in 2011: DeAngelo Williams (836), Jonathan Stewart (761) and Newton (706). The Panthers must do a better job closing. They were ahead or tied in 12 of 16 games last season, but allowed an NFL-high 143 points in the fourth quarter.
ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS (2011: 4-12): Tampa Bay, which was also last in the NFL with 23 sacks in 2011, bolstered its defense with two draft picks who will step into starting roles. Alabama’s Mark Barron, the No. 7 overall selection, will play strong safety (veteran Ronde Barber moves to free safety) and second-round pick Lavonte David of Nebraska will spearhead the linebacking corps. Offensively, the Buccaneers signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson to provide quarterback Josh Freeman an explosive deep threat and drafted Boise State’s Doug Martin with the 31st overall pick to bolster a running game which ranked 26th in the NFL at 94.5 yards. The Buccaneers hope Freeman returns to the form that produced 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 2010, his first full season. Freeman slumped to 16 TDs and 22 picks last season. Barber will start his 200th consecutive game.
1. Carolina routed Tampa Bay 38-19 and 48-16 in Weeks 13 and 16 last season.
2. The Panthers (6-11) have the worst Week 1 record in the NFL while the Buccaneers (14-22) are fourth-worst.